Billy Joel calls his working life ‘being in harness.’ Every since I heard him say that in an interview, I’ve adopted it. ‘I’m in harness,’ I tell my friends. I can’t go play. I’m in harness. You can’t live your whole life in harness though. You have to know how long the trip is going to be, or you are unlikely to saddle up. I write in four forty-minute blocks of time, with mandatory fifteen minute breaks in between. This kind of happens from 9-1, but not exactly. If I don’t hit my marks, I have to work at night. I’m in harness, but the milk runs are clear, definable, and they end. I can’t work without a timer. I can focus for 45 minutes. No more, no less. I’m half horse, half rider.
You write to find out what you believe, or what you can afford to believe. So when I write something and it sounds good, I leave it in, usually, to see what it sounds like to someone else. To somebody else it might sound awful or brash, but I want to be able to have the courage of my brashness. I don’t leave things in that I know to be terrible, or that I don’t, as it were, find interesting—I don’t do that—but if there’s a doubt about it and it sounds interesting, I’ll leave it in. And I want to be free to do that, because that’s why I write.
For some writer/readers, community support may be more important than upholding standards? Maybe some writer/readers haven’t yet begun to identify their standards because they’re too busy maneuvering among the community online, practicing good literary citizenry, doing what they can to support those in need? But I think conflict occurs when those who mostly support make it seem like they’re upholding a standard, especially when praise is exaggeratedly positive, hyperbolically supportive, evangelically ululating that someone’s writing is ‘great,’ thereby equivalent to God in the minds of literary fundamentalists.
All I know is that I love reading books, and when I write I want my books to be like the books I love: solid, thoughtful, cliché-less, and both mindful of the ugliness of the world and also the beauty of being alive.
We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.
By the time I started I’d learned a vital lesson: too much research can swamp a story, stifle creativity, and bury the life in a novel. That happened to me with another novel, one that I tried (and failed) to write before this, one for which I’d done a tremendous amount of research, and one that, in the end, I found I couldn’t write because I was trying to write to the research instead of using the research in service of the story. Some writers thrive on digging into research as they’re writing, some on doing extensive research before they start in on the process of creation, but I know that, for me, I have to be careful to do just enough to feel that I’m grounded in the world of the story—and then let the story loose before I go any further.
When reporters tease out similarities between novelists and their protagonists, it’s not only boring and lazy, but offensive to the whole point of writing fiction. To tell the reporter that I’d never been ever clinically depressed might discredit the veracity of the emotional experience of the main character, but to tell her yes would be to feed into the idea that novelists are just a blink and a name away from their narrators. This is especially true of those who dare to write in first-person voice, and extra extra true, it seems to me, if you’re a woman—as if all we can birth is more of ourselves.
Through a sentence I hope to approach something close to singing. I hear words first, and that’s what pulls me in. I hear the word as sound—not to be confused with the thing that the words refer to—write it down, and then try to bring others into play. Play and sound are the main members of the band here. I hope the reader, if there is a reader, might wish to sing along.
I knew that if I tried to write a novel in chronological order, I was going to get bogged down in the litany of ‘then this happened, then this happened, then this happened.’ I think that’s my failing. As a writer I have difficulty sustaining interest in plot when it unfolds in so linear a way. So I made a very conscious decision, saying to myself, “Why don’t I give it away? And then I’m not stuck with the burden of the chronology.” I also had a feeling—and this developed later—that I wasn’t going to be able to pull off a surprise ending. So again, I thought removing any attempt at that would help me.
The difference between art and entertainment involves the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so we can re-think and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so we don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all.
Lance Olsen, [[there.]]
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